Tariffs and the Industry: Impacts of the Trade War on Wine, Beer & Spirits

By: Jessica Spengler

Throughout 2018, the Trump administration’s implementation of tariffs on several foreign goods, and the retaliatory tariffs that followed suit have confused markets and worried many businesses. The alcohol industry—wine, beer, spirits and those who support them—have all been affected in some way by these tariffs, or expect to be in 2019 if they continue. With the news on tariffs changing almost monthly, it can be hard to keep up, which causes further insecurity for the industry.

Timeline of Events

  Trade tensions began in January 2018 when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on solar cells and washing machines after a report stating that imports were hurting the domestic U.S. market in those businesses.

  On March 8, 2018, President Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum to take effect on March 23. At this time, Canada and Mexico were granted an exemption pending talks to renegotiate NAFTA. After threats from the EU to impose retaliatory tariffs, the administration allowed exemptions for the EU, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia through May 1, which would eventually extend to June 1.

  On April 2, China imposed tariffs ranging from 15-25 percent on various U.S. products, including fruit, wine, whiskey, and other products totaling approximately 3 billion U.S. dollars.

  On June 1, exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs ended for the EU, Canada and Mexico. Argentina and Brazil struck deals with the Trump administration limiting the quantities of steel and aluminum they ship to the U.S., while Australia negotiated for no trade restrictions.

  In retaliation, on June 22, the EU imposed tariffs on $3.2 billion of U.S. products, including a 25 percent tariff on Bourbon and whiskey. Then, on July 1, Canada also imposed retaliatory tariffs on $12.8 billion in U.S. products including 25 percent on steel, and 10 percent on aluminum and whiskey. In addition, Mexico implemented a 25 percent tariff on Tennessee whiskey.

  After talks with China failed in May, the first phase of the trade war occurs in mid-June, with the Trump administration announcing it will enact a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion more in Chinese goods. Beijing retaliated, placing more tariffs on $50 billion in U.S. products.

  In September, President Trump announced another 10 percent tariff on $200 billion more in Chinese products, that he planned to increase to 25 percent at the beginning of 2019. These tariffs impacted manufacturers of fermentation tanks outside of the U.S.

  On September 30, a compromised was made between the U.S. and Canada for an updated NAFTA. Mexico and the U.S. had already come to an agreement by this point, and so the new agreement, called by the Trump administration the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, would be signed by the three leaders at the end of November. Mexican and Canadian governments were both hopeful that tariffs would end before signing.

  In November, President Trump and President Xi Jinping of China both showed interest in coming to a compromise, ending a tense few months of escalation.

  On November 30, 2018, President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the USMCA in Buenos Aires on the first day of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires without any agreement to end the tariffs. At the time of publication, talks to alleviate tariffs with Mexico and Canada but implement quotas are in progress, but no deal has been reached.

  On December 2, 2018, at a dinner between President Trump and President Xi, they agreed to a truce, putting a stop to any further tariffs for 90 days to give the two countries time to come to an agreement. At the time of publication, Robert Lighthizer is leading negotiations, but no deal has yet been made.

Effects to the U.S. Wine, Beer, and Spirits Industries


  China has been a growing market for American wine for nearly 20 years. The market has increased almost 1200 percent since 2001 despite an already steep tax of 54 percent on imported wine. China’s retaliatory tariffs threatened to stop that growth in its tracks if the tariffs continue. After two rounds of tariffs on wine, the first in April at 15 percent and the second in September at 10 percent, the current taxes and tariffs for U.S. wine going into China is 79 percent. That percentage is quite unsettling for winemakers who have a market stake in China, particularly if no agreement is reached and the current truce ends.

  Igor Sill, owner of Sill Family Vineyards, told The Grapevine Magazine in an email: “Yes, I’ve been very concerned over the latest exchanges between U.S. and China trade given that we are already being penalized with a 15 percent tariff. The newest retaliation from China to our steel and aluminum trade policies will add 25 percent to that existing tariff, essentially pricing me out of the China marketplace. It’s a real shame, frustration, and disappointment as we have nothing to do with manufacturing and construction materials, but yet are hit with this inability to compete in China’s luxury wine sector against other imported wines. I really pray that the trade dispute with China is resolved equitably and quickly. At $185 per bottle, my Chinese customer would need to pay some $275 per bottle to enjoy our wines. That would greatly reduce China sales for us.”

This reduction is particularly disappointing for Sill Family Vineyards, winners of the China Spirits and Wine Associations’ 2018 Wine of the Year for their 2015 Napa Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the coveted Double Gold Medal for excellence.

  “We’ve been focused on sales and distribution to the China marketplace since 2014.  It’s a huge market that appreciates the quality of exceptional fine wines and, specifically, they have grown their appreciation for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon by some 10-12 percent each year.  When you have some 1.5 billion people in China, those consumption numbers are more than substantial to someone like us—a small, family producer of limited production, high-end wines, crafting a mere 800 cases of wine per year.”

  Sill planned to increase the percentage of his business in China from four percent to eight in 2018 and with a 15-20 percent increase annually through 2023.

  “These plans have since changed,” said Sill. They now plan to refocus on the U.S. market, concentrating on high-volume wine consuming states such as Texas, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Florida.

  If the tariffs continue, pushing Sill and other California wineries out of the Chinese market and back into the U.S., it could cause problems for lesser known wines.

  “If these California wineries decide to curb sending that wine into China, the wine needs to be sold somewhere, and it could come back here to the United States, which could lead to more competition for shelf space and storage with other state wine industries,” said Michael Kaiser, Vice President of trade group, Wine America.

  However, Kaiser said, despite the high tariffs that threaten to increase, even more, it doesn’t appear other California wineries are following Sill out of China.

 “The exports to China from the U.S. are up 18 percent this year so far. It’s still increasing. I think it was the number fifth-highest market last year for U.S. wine. About $80 million worth of U.S. wine was sent into China last year. So, it doesn’t appear that the tariffs are compelling people not to export their wine to China. I think that it shows how valuable a market it is that people are willing to pay these new tariffs on their wine going into that market,” said Kaiser.

  That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been an effect, said Kaiser. The impact will be more apparent after the new year. “It’s hard to really quantify because [the tariffs] haven’t really been around that long, but we’ll have to look and see what it’s like in January and February when we have the numbers for the year,” he said.


  For many in the brewing industry, what should have been a banner year of expansion and growth ended up as something much different. In December 2017, Congress lowered the federal excise tax from $7/barrel on the first 60,000 barrels for domestic brewers producing less than two million barrels annually, to $3.50/barrel. For imports and domestic brewers producing over two million barrels annually, barrel costs were reduced from $18/barrel to $16/barrel on the first six million barrels. The tax cut opened up staffing and expansion opportunities that excited many brewers.

  “Then a few months later, unfortunately, the Trump administration imposed a 10 percent tariff on aluminum, which raised costs for brewers,” said Jim McGreevy, President and CEO of The Beer Institute, the oldest beer trade organization in the U.S.

  “We’re seeing an impact to the industry and brewers big and small. We estimate that the tariffs are a $347 million tax on beer. I told you about that tax relief we received in December—that was roughly $130 million of tax relief for beer. So, we received $130 million tax relief in December, and in March we received a $347 million tax increase. This is definitely affecting the industry as a whole.”

  The tariff on imported aluminum contributed to the rising prices of cans – in a time when more breweries than ever are embracing use of 12 and 20 ounces cans, as well as the to-go style “crowler.” The extra cost can severely affect the bottom line.

  “Aluminum is the single biggest input cost for beer brewers. Of the 6,000 or more breweries in this country, you see more and more distributing their beer, and you see more and more putting their beer in aluminum cans and aluminum bottles. So this is a major input cost for beer brewers, big and small. That 10 percent tariff affected beer brewers because a large portion of aluminum used to put beer in comes from outside the country,” said McGreevy.

  It doesn’t seem to matter where or how a brewer buys their aluminum either.

  “One large brewer announced a few months ago that this was a $40 million cost to them every year. We’ve had small brewers who are members of ours—even small brewers who are not members of the Beer Institute—tell us that their aluminum costs are going up, even if they get their aluminum from a broker. This is affecting the price of aluminum up and down the chain, no matter how you get the aluminum, whether you have long-standing contracts with aluminum providers, or you’re a smaller brewer, and you’re getting your aluminum from a broker,” said McGreevy.

Bourbon and Other Spirits

  The U.S. Bourbon industry is hit hardest in the EU where retaliatory tariffs of 25 percent threaten to stifle what has been, over the last few years, a booming industry. Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, a non-profit trade association founded in 1880, told The Grapevine Magazine that Kentucky Bourbon is an $8.5 billion industry with the state, employing 17,500 Kentuckians with a payroll of over $800 million. Bourbon distillers contribute $815 million each year in local, state, and federal taxes, with much of their local and state taxes going to fund education.

  According to Gregory, Bourbon has remained relatively safe thanks to the foresight of larger distillers. “So far, and I say that with a word of caution, we have not had that much of a dramatic impact. The reason is mainly two-fold: a lot of the smaller craft distilleries really haven’t gotten into the export market yet—they’re barely able to produce enough product just for the regional market at best. The bigger distilleries that have the global distribution network and who are expanding at rapid rates, mainly to meet that global demand, most of them had the ability to stockpile product overseas before the tariffs hit. From every indication I’ve been told, that is carrying them through until about the first of the year,” said Gregory.

  However, after the stockpile dwindles, prices will likely go up, and Gregory said that will likely keep Bourbon from continuing its uptick as a serious contender on the world stage.

  “I don’t think you can find a better example of free and fair trade than Kentucky Bourbon in the last 20 years. We have grown exponentially. In 1999, just a couple years after the tariffs, NAFTA and the free trade pact with the EU took effect, as a state we only produced 455,000 barrels of bourbon. Last year we produced 1.7 million barrels of bourbon. Much of that is going to the global exports. [We’ve been able to] put ourselves on a level playing field with our friends in the Scotch industry and other great whiskey markets. We’ve been able to convert drinkers to Kentucky Bourbon, and if we have a problem with competing on the shelves and prices, then we can lose some of those converts who might look at what they used to drink, and it’s less expensive, and they’ll start drinking that again. At that point, if we’ve lost them, we might have lost them for a generation,” Gregory said.

  Bourbon distillers can choose to absorb the cost of the tariffs, which hurts the local economy as a whole. “That’s less money and profits coming back to your companies, which means less investment in Kentucky, fewer jobs, and we don’t like that either,” said Gregory. “In Kentucky, with Bourbon being such an economic driver, both from jobs to tourism, we are just now starting to ratchet up production and tourism opportunities, and it’s really like throwing a wet blanket on a booming industry.”

  What worries Gregory the most, is the long-term effects that the tariffs may have within the Bourbon industry and on Kentucky. “Worst case scenario, you get to a price war, where there’s an abundance of Bourbon on the market, and that drops down prices, and that significantly harms our smaller craft distillers. They’re just now trying to survive in this market,” he said. “Even worse, worst-case scenario, if distillers start to produce less Kentucky Bourbon, which has a dramatic ripple effect across the Kentucky economy, and not only means fewer jobs and less investment, but we are the only place in the world that taxes aging barrels of spirits. So if you’re enjoying an 18-year-old bottle of Kentucky Bourbon, it’s been taxed 18 times, and the great majority of that tax revenue goes back to fund local schools. If for whatever reason we get to the point where we’re producing less, then, it can ultimately hurt education and other public health and safety programs here in Kentucky.”

  Other spirit producers have lost contracts, been forced to lower price points in other countries, and had to adjust future growth projections due to the tariffs, American Craft Spirits Association Executive Director Margie Lehrman told The Grapevine Magazine.

  “I’ve had distillers tell me that they had contracts on their desk ready to be signed for export to China, for instance, and those contracts got ripped up. It’s just simply off the table,” she said. “I’ve had other distillers tell me that they had actual product on freight going over to Great Britain, where they were told by the importer, ‘If you want us to off-load your freight, your price point has to drop down to this.’ I had one distiller tell me they had estimated over 30 percent of their business [would go to] export sales and because of the tariffs, they needed to knock that down to 15 percent, which is really significant for these small businesses.”


  Some industry suppliers who manufacture their equipment anywhere other than the U.S. were hit by the second round of tariffs in September. This tariff affects manufacturers of stainless steel fermentation tanks, such as William Cover’s company, Fermenters Choice Stainless Ltd. They import stainless steel fermentation and storage tanks for wineries, brewing and industrial purposes;  manufacturing their tanks in China, and then shipping them to the U.S. and Canada. Because of this, their fermentation tanks were hit with a 10 percent tariff in September, and, if the talks between the U.S. and China fall through, could increase to 25 percent in early March 2019. Cover only recently expanded into the U.S. in 2017. Previously he’d serviced only Canada.

  Cover told The Grapevine Magazine that right now he cannot compete with American made tanks, but he believes that once stocks of pre-tariff steel deplete and manufacturers begin buying more expensive U.S. steel, he may see a swing back in his direction, though, at a higher price.

  “There are also tariffs on imported stainless steel–the raw stock used by U.S. based tank manufacturers to make tanks. So once their current inventory of stock and their costs and final product cost is likely to increase as well. That should make my price competitive again, although at a higher final cost to the winery and brewery than before,” said Cover.

  For now, Cover looks to markets other than the U.S., a move he believes many other manufacturers will make. “The products produced in countries like China now need to find another market. There will likely be a reduction in their export price. I am now expanding my business to South America – there are large wine producing regions in Chile and Argentina. This is an example of the consequences of tariffs– other countries will buy less expensive products, decrease their costs and increase their market share.  These new tariffs will contribute to lower cost, foreign growth in the wine industry,” he said.

  Imported brewing equipment such as bright tanks have remained mostly unaffected by the tariffs but already carried a four percent tax before the trade war.

Restaurants and Retailers

  For restaurants and retailers, the tariffs affect the bottom line when their alcohol suppliers—breweries, wineries and distilleries—increase prices due to rising production costs. Justin Shedelbower,  Communications Director at the American Beverage Institute, a trade organization that represents restaurant chains that sell alcohol, told The Grapevine Magazine what happens when these price hikes flow downward.

  “For an industry such as the beer industry, that uses a lot of aluminum, [the aluminum tariff] increases the production cost significantly, which forces them to raise the price of their products. That price increase rolls downhill to the consumer and restaurant level,” said Shedelbower. “Once you get to the restaurant, it’s higher priced beer. The restaurant has two choices. They can either keep their prices the same and eat that extra cost, reducing their profit margins, or they can increase the price they sell to their customers with, and that just ends up reducing sales. If something costs more, people buy less of it.”

 Reduced sales lead to reduced profits, which may lead to canceling plans for future expansion or cutting staff.

  “Many of these restaurants already have slim profit margins as it is. When profit margins are eaten away further by either taking on the costs of these tariffs or just not selling as much because the prices are higher, it just eats away at it further. So now they don’t have this extra cash on hand, whether maybe they were planning on expanding, so maybe now they can’t expand or hire the additional employees that they needed. Or it can induce layoffs,” said Shedelbower.

A Possible Solution in the Works

  With the signing of the USMCA and the 90-day truce with China, it’s possible that the worst is over, and the world will soon see a return to normal trade routines. Reactions to these events are encouraging to both trade organizations and producers; however, there is still plenty of work to do.

  “We were pleased to see there will be a pause in any tariffs for at least 90 days. We will continue to let Congress know about our feelings on the tariffs. What it means, in the long run, is anyone’s guess,” said WineAmerica’s Kaiser.

  “The signing of the USMCA is definitely a step in the right direction and will help alleviate tensions between the three countries. However, the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum still remain—an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. The U.S. imposed tariffs, and the subsequent retaliatory trade penalties continue to threaten the hospitality and alcohol industries with higher operation and production costs, as well as induce growing challenges for accessing foreign markets,” ABI’s Shedelbower told us.

  “We hope lawmakers require the administration to end tariffs as a condition of support for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. In our eyes, the deal is incomplete until the administration eliminates all steel and aluminum tariffs,” The Beer Institute’s McGreevy said.

  Cover of Fermenter’s Choice is happy about the truce, but he thinks a deal will take into account the changes the tariffs made to the market. “It remains to be seen how long it will take to remove them altogether. I don’t expect that to happen quickly as the American companies that ramped up production of steel and other commodities—reopening old plants, hiring new workers, etc., will lobby hard for some time to recoup their investment. It’s not fair to them to remove the tariffs so quickly—and a bad political move for Trump. I would expect the second tariff to come off after a few months, but the first tariff could be a year or longer.”

  Igor Sill is relieved, not only for himself but for the positive impact a deal could have on both the Chinese and U.S. financial markets. “China’s financial market has been severely depressed since Trump announced his policy’s intention, and of course, we’ve seen Wall Street’s, and the global stock markets drop as well. With today’s “truce” announcement I sense that wiser minds will prevail and an equitable resolution, i.e., no tariff, or considerably lower tariffs will salvage the global economic markets and my ability to sell our wines into China. Overall, I’m much more optimistic now.”

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